Thursday, November 5, 2015

A conversation with the cast and director of Fountain Hills Theater's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

Kyle Bennett as George and Debra Qualtire as Dot
photo: Carol Carroll and Todd Carrie
by Gil Benbrook

The musical Sunday in the Park with George was inspired by impressionist artist Georges Seurat's famous painting 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.' Composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine combined two stories, one focusing on Seurat's creation of the piece, and another set years later that features a descendant of Seurat, also named George, to merge past and present into a moving and beautiful story about life, love and the creation of art. Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his score, and Sunday is often considered to be his one show that is his most personal, in that it specifically deals with the creation of art, criticism and how the creation process affects the individual who creates it, as well as those around us. 

This is something that resonates closely not only with Sondheim but everyone who takes part in a production of this musical. Fountain Hills Theater's production of this beloved musical opens tomorrow, and runs through November 22nd, and we asked Kyle Bennett and Debra Qualtire, who star in this production, and Damon Bolling who directed it, to take a break from rehearsals to sit down and answer some questions about the show and how it has affected them.

Kyle Bennett

What are you finding about the themes of the musical - the creation of art and how it impacts a person - that has resonated with you? And is there anything that you’ve realized about yourself or the creation process as rehearsals for the show have progressed?

"My career for the last seventeen years has been as a commercial artist – so my biggest critics are always the consumers of my products. They are the target I am eagerly trying to please. This show is perhaps the musical most singly focused on what it can take for anyone to produce visual arts.  Its themes all find a home in my own life."

Your part was originated by Mandy Patinkin, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance, and that production, with his performance, was recorded so is readily available. Any concerns in taking on a part that was originated by such an iconic Broadway performer?

"Not at all, the fact that it’s originated by such iconic performers is what drives me to do it in the first place.  Their performances are exciting, impressive and dynamic, and I want to learn how to do the same.  Following in their footsteps is a way to do that."

Have you ever played the part before?

"No I haven't. This is actually my first Stephen Sondheim show, after doing several shows by Lloyd-Webber, Schwartz, Yorkey, and Andersson/Ulvaeus."

Sondheim’s score for Sunday features some of his most complicated music as well as some very tricky lyrics. As a performer, what are you finding most challenging about this production?

"My greatest challenge with the score is piecing together phrases within blocks of music when they are sung repeatedly, in nearly the same way, but with slight lyrical variations each time."

You’re playing two characters in the show. How difficult is that to do?

"It’s not exactly difficult – the two Georges are somewhat inverse of each other. The show could be seen as a single character’s journey, split over two lifetimes. One tortured character who achieves an artistic masterpiece, and then loses his way in another market/image-driven era. In the first act, Georges has artistic fulfillment, but not respect or personal connection. He’s cold focused - like a laser.  Act II’s George is diffused and emotional.  He has his personal connections, and some degree of respect, but he has lost his artistic mojo. Act I’s Georges has purpose, but act II’s George is lost."

Kyle Bennett as George and Debra Qualtire as Dot
photo: Carol Carroll and Todd Carrie
Any other type of research you did for the part?

"While I would have liked to have flown to Chicago to see the painting of 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' or or Paris to see the park in person, I have had to limit my research to the internet."

What was the rehearsal process like?

"Many, focused rehearsals working on getting musical cadence and character down."

Have you ever worked with Damon before?

"This is my first time.  He’s a great collaborator, and I hope to do so again in the future."

What is your favorite moment in the show?

"My favorite moment is probably 'Finishing the Hat' in act one. It's George’s most traditionally melodic tune, and a delight to sing."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

"To make art, you simply have to make decisions, and continue to move on. The world cannot be perfect, but it can be good and beautiful if your eyes are opened to see it. Keep moving on."

Many musical theatre aficionados consider Sondheim to be the best living musical theatre composer. If you could ask Stephen Sondheim one question, what would it be?

"When, at one point, you considered abandoning writing musicals in favor of mystery stories – which of your would-be plots did you like the most?"

Debra Qualtire

What are you finding about the themes of the musical - the creation of art and how it impacts a person - that has resonated with you? And is there anything that you’ve realized about yourself or the creation process as rehearsals for the show have progressed?

"I know that when I am rehearsing for any show, especially this one, I am consumed by everything involved in this process, including the script, music, characters, costumes, etc.  All my other relationships and interests take a backseat during this time.  The songs are constantly in my head!  There is very little else in my life during this time, continuing through the run of the show.  I especially want everything about this show and character to be perfect.  This show is especially dear to my heart and important to me, as it was my first introduction to Sondheim, if you can believe that."

Your part was originated by Bernadette Peters, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance, and that production, with her performance, was recorded so is readily available. Any concerns in taking on a part that was originated by such an iconic Broadway performer?

"Of course! I know I will be compared to Bernadette and am prepared for criticism, on many levels.  I know I can never be her, but I am hoping I can at least do "Dot" justice, in my own way."

Have you ever played the part before?

"No, but I was lucky enough to have played Celeste #2 and Betty in Phoenix Little Theater's production here in Phoenix in 1989!  It was then that I began my lifelong love of this show and Sondheim!"

Sondheim’s score for Sunday features some of his most complicated music as well as some very tricky lyrics. As a performer, what are you finding most challenging about this production?

"I have been in many Sondheim shows, but to me, this is the most difficult to me, both music and lyrically.  As many people have done, I learned Dot's songs specifically listening to the Mandy/Bernadette recording.  It is much different when you see how the music is actually written."

You’re playing two characters in the show. How difficult is that to do?

"It is definitely challenging, but I enjoy it.  I want to make sure that my characters are different.   Fortunately for me, Marie is 98 years old and was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, so she has a southern accent.  But I do have to make sure mannerisms and movements correspond to her age."

Kyle Bennett as George and Debra Qualtire as Dot
photo: Carol Carroll and Todd Carrie
Any other type of research you did for the part?

"Not so much for the part, but I specifically have not watched the video since we began rehearsing.  I wanted to explore these characters and be on the journey for myself."

What was the rehearsal process like?

"It has been great!  Our production staff, stage manager, musical director and Damon have been more than helpful and encouraging.  I so appreciate having "enough" rehearsals.  And I have truly enjoyed this journey with my fellow cast members.  Everyone is so talented."

Have you ever worked with Damon before?

"Yes!  I was so fortunate to perform in Falsettos here in Phoenix with Damon, who was amazing."

What is your favorite moment in the show?

"I have to say, the final scenes with George, Dot, Old Lady and the entire cast, and the final song!   They so resonate with me personally."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

"Wow, that's tough, as there are many.  I think the finale of the show is what most people will remember, which, to me, is be true to yourself - do what you love, no matter what obstacles are in your way.  Don't be so concerned what other people think."

By many musical theatre aficionados, Sondheim is considered the best living composer. If you could ask Stephen Sondheim one question, what would it be?

"Good heavens!!  Could you please cast me in your next show?!  Hahaha!!  Just kidding.  Being a musician myself, I think it might be when you're writing the music, do you consciously think of the time signatures throughout the music, or are they secondary to the notes and lyrics?  Hope that doesn't sound too boring!  I wish I could think of something more profound right now."


Damon Bolling

While you’ve performed in numerous shows, you are relatively new to directing. However, the first show you directed just this past February, Dreamgirls, won numerous AriZoni Awards. How difficult is it to prepare to follow up that award winning production?

"There’s a certain discipline required for every show, no matter what the past history and/or accolades may be associated with one’s previous works.  I don’t use my reputation to set the bar, I use my experience of what works and what doesn’t, growing pains I have suffered through, and scheduling processes. I do however, try and challenge myself to do better with each project where I am at the helm.  Each production/project deserves the same amount of focus and time spent with equal distribution of love and dedication. So basically, I love all of my children the same!"

From our past conversations I know that this musical especially resonates with you, not only in that it was a show that you watched on video, with your mom, when you were very young, but, like in the show, the memories of that experience are different from both you and your mother. What can you tell us about your memories about that experience?

"It truly was a life imitates art moment, and the parallel component is that this conversation with my mother was recent. Not surprising, really, as she would be recalling her own memories after learning that I was directing the show, as it is very near and dear to both of us.  My dad was a longtime valley talk show host and would tape several episodes at a time at the KPHO studios, which left many a weekend nights with just me and my mother.  We had a standing tradition to go to the video store where I would get to choose one movie and she would get to choose one movie.  She chose Sunday In The Park With George.  I was 11, and it was 1986, so I had no idea who Mandy Patinkin was, and certainly not Stephen Sondheim or James Lapine. Bernadette Peters may have rung a bell because I think I had seen Pennies From Heaven by then. I was not well versed in 19th century expressionism or pointillism, so the painting  'A Sunday Afternoon On The Island La Grande Jatte' had ZERO bearing with me (also, pre-Ferris Bueller.)  My recollection is that we watched the video alone, just the two of us because of my dad’s schedule.  My mother tells the story that the THREE of us sat down together and watched it as a family.  She recalls what SHOULD have been, I recall what REALLY happened!"

What are you finding about the themes of the musical - the creation of art and how it impacts a person - that has resonated with you? And is there anything that you’ve realized about yourself or the creation process as rehearsals for the show have progressed?

"Sure.  On this side of the table, you are creating something from start to finish, and since the show is highly revered by not only the theatre community, but my me, there is enormous pressure to get it right. I think the song 'Finishing the Hat' has unlocked itself a little more clearly having started with this process and throughout rehearsals.  It’s about the persistence of excellence to want to create. It’s about sacrifice as an artist because of the bigger picture and not the 'right now.' You give up a lot for, hopefully, the greater good. Personally, I’ve had major connections throughout the years to other songs in the show which will always have sacred meaning with specific memories for me like 'We Do Not Belong Together' about the regret of not being able to make something seemingly so right with a particular relationship not work. Even though all of the pieces are there, sometimes it just isn’t meant to be because of the way another person is wired, and you can’t force it. You just can’t.  'Children and Art' in particular has a lot of fresh wounds for me, as I was extremely close to both of my grandmothers and in particular my mother’s mother.  Some of the lyrics from this song were read in her eulogy at her funeral by my mother."

As Sondheim’s only Pulitzer Prize winning score, what were your biggest concerns with directing a production of Sunday?

"Call me na├»ve, or wistful, but I am a glass is half full kind of guy.  I didn’t have any concerns per se.
There are and always will be challenges and opportunities.  I think the balance of, again, art imitating
life, although, the show is designed this way, having to be tech savvy as well as an artist - just like
George in act II - was the biggest challenge. But as long as you map it out well in advance and have
amazing support from the design team, you are golden.  And we have an amazing design team."

What was the audition process like?

"Fast! We had auditions, and the show was cast in a week and we started rehearsals IN that week. Also, with all of the shows auditioning in the Valley for the same time slot- we were fighting tooth
and nail for amazing people. I got amazing people. I got lucky!!! "

As the show prepares to open, and after having several weeks of rehearsals, is there anything that has changed in your directorial choices from what your original thought was?

"I don’t veer too far off from my original vision and blocking before we start staging the show, we have to make adjustments because of the venue of course, but it was in my head for a few decades, lol."

Why do you think this show, with such a great story and score, isn’t produced so often?

"The degree of difficulty- the score is a bear. It is mean!  Also the tech is a handful as well. You need strong actors, strong singers, a very solid technical concept, and a venue where you won’t lose your hat. Contrary to popular belief, outside of the theatre community, the show doesn’t resonate with the general public as a 'commercial' success. It ran for a year and four months on Broadway, which is
respectable, but it wasn’t A Chorus Line or Cats as far as tourism dollar sustainability goes.  Other than the musical theatre community who after the first listen of the cast recording, became by the majority 'obsessed' the accessibility and acceptance of the score was not universal across the boards to the general public.  It’s atonal and highly syncopated, only a few soaring themes and dissonant. Everything a Sondheimphile loves!"

By many musical theatre aficionados, Sondheim is considered the best living composer. If you could ask Stephen Sondheim one question, what would it be?

"Where is your favorite destination in the world that you’ve traveled?"

What is your favorite moment in the show?

"The song ‘Sunday’ in both the act I and act II finales.  I cry buckets every time. It’s also Stephen Sondheim’s favorite song, by the way."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

"Legacy.  We don’t know really who the people in the painting are. Only Georges Seurat knows that
secret. But  James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim have given us the next best thing, and we have a
story and a personality  for each character.  George Seurat has passed on this masterpiece for us to
look at forever. I feel that we can all relate to this in our own way about what we leave behind,
how we make our mark. What will our legacy be?  What did we sacrifice and what obstacles did we
overcome?  It’s not about signing the wall saying 'we were here' it’s about our own individual and
unique thumbprint we have to contribute for the greater good, and THAT is what is most important-
that it be preserved to leave behind."

Sunday in the Park with George runs at Fountain Hills Theater through November 22nd. Click here for more information on this production. 

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